Daniel Coyle on the “Sweet Spot” in Guitar Practice

Tuesday Quotes are short explorations of music, life, and the daily endeavor of practicing classical guitar. Enjoy!

“The sweet spot: that productive, uncomfortable terrain located just beyond our current abilities, where our reach exceeds our grasp. Deep practice is not simply about struggling; it’s about seeking a particular struggle, which involves a cycle of distinct actions.”

Daniel Coyle

Mountains of research now show how to learn music effectively. We need our practice to be hard, but not too hard.

In his book, The Talent Code, Daniel Coyle names a key ingredient to the learning “sweet spot”. The key is “uncomfortable”.

In our practice, we need to constantly search for that zone just beyond our current abilities.

If we push too far, we become disillusioned and frustrated. If we don’t push far enough, we become bored and frustrated.

So how do we find this “sweet spot”? And how do we know when we’re there?

To answer these questions, we need to find clarity in our current task. Whatever we’re practicing in the moment, we need to know exactly what we’re trying to do.

For each step forward in speed, cleanliness, or mere comprehension, we can break the work down into ever-smaller steps.

And for these small steps, we need to know the moves involved (the choreography). We need to know how one note connects to the next. We need to know what success looks like.

Within these small challenges, we seek out the pace and work that takes all our focus and awareness. We can do it, but it’s not easy. We can do it only if we give our full attention.

Riding this wave – “I can do it, but it’s hard” – is the sweet spot. Sometimes it feels leagues from the final finished piece. Sometimes the steps forward are so small we question the whole affair.

But as long as we’re balancing on the edge of our abilities, we’re getting better.

Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

These warm-up and stretching exercises are helping me a lot! Because I’m a software developer I have to stay 8 hours typing on a computer keyboard, so I use my hands a lot during the day. At night, when I have some time to practice the guitar my hands and arms are usually in pain because they have been working a lot during the day, but I’ve found that doing the warm-up/stretching exercises in The Woodshed releases me from this pain and I’m then able to practice after doing them.  

You are building a very interesting and working guitar course, because for what I’ve seen so far it really works!

-Ulysses Alexandre Alves

Hi Allen, just wanted to provide some feedback. Since I've started doing the exercises [in The Woodshed program] my guitar is sounding a lot better, with fuller sound, less effort. Its as if I bought a new guitar or got a new pair of hands (or both). Amazing my friend. Thank you!

-Nusret Aydemir

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